In the past few years I have traveled a lot by trains in different countries, while nothing beats the punctuality of the Swiss Railways (SBB), or the speed of Deutsche Bahn & TrainItalia, none of these travel systems have the true experience like the Indian Railways.
During my college days I’d used to travel regularly on the Sleeper class from Noida/Pune to Lucknow. Like everyone else, I have been a witness to the unapologetic delays,the festival rush when having a reservation meant little when fellow travelers had to get home to be with their families on Diwali.While I upgraded to the AC IIIrd, it just wouldn’t give me the same experience as the Sleeper Class travels or General class travels between Lucknow & Kanpur.
I have been always amazed at the uncanny ability, of passengers, to analyse delays in the local MEMU type trains stopping in between stations in the middle of nowhere. A typical conversation in this situation would go like this:
‘Bhaisaab, ye train kyun ruk gayi? (Brother, why did the train stop?)’
With an air of authority of such matters the reply would be, ‘Passenger hai, Shatabdi cross ho rahi hai, dekhna abhi crossing ke baad chal padegi (ours is a passenger train, giving way to a more important train, you’ll see it pass)’
And if by chance, the above mentioned logic fails, the second response would be, ‘Lucknow station pe platform khali nahi hoga, aajkal bahut train late hai isliye rukna hai. (No free platforms in the destination, we’d get in once it frees up)’
These conversations happen everyday between strangers, nobody knows how true they might be or who created them to begin with, but there would always be someone to ask and answer.
Then, there would be instances when you’d have reserved a lower level seat and there would always be a gentleman requesting you to shift to the upper levels because ‘ladies hai (women passengers with them)’. If you were a guy like me, most of the times you’d grudgingly oblige, even when the upper berth was your last preference.
But the most fun was to be had to be a part of wedding parties, when at each station some new members of your extended family would join you with fresh supplies of snacks, cold water and family gossip. The singing & gossip sessions would last late into the night, but who’d care about other passengers. Of course, there would always be that elder uncle or cousin who’d be snoring like a siren, feeling completely at home in the wobbling train.
Talking of these train journeys, how can one forget to mention the support economy of chaiwallahs and naashta (breakfast) sellers who’d chirp in at each station offering you wafer thin omelettes, & cutlets from unverified sources. Many train stations have their own special offerings which lure the foodies to step out at the stops and attempt to pick the sweetmeat or savory offered. The chaiwallahs (tea sellers) deserve a special mention with their trademark calls for tea, which is always promised to be enriched with cardamon and tulsi (basil) with a money back guarantee on quality! Lets not forget, he’d be off the train much before you’d be done with your tea, but the promise meant something to everyone.
Finally, there would be the ticket collector in his black coat moving with the air as if he were the king of the train, followed by hapless passengers on the wait list requesting the lord’s mercy be bestowed upon them with a berth to sleep for the night.
But while all this excited me, everyone would often knowingly ignore young lecherous men leering lustily at young women making them uncomfortable, exposing the undercurrents of gender issues in India, or parents beating the hell out of their kids in public as a punishment for their hyperactivity.